THE phonograph, the phonograph,
‘Tis a wonderful thing, the phonograph;
But what happened to me will make you laugh,
When I brought home a new phonograph.
I felt rather gay,
So I thought I’d essay
How a kiss would come out
In a phonograph way.
I said “Oh, you darling! delighted to meet you,
With a chaste osculation permit me to greet you;”
Then I fired off a regular volley of kisses
Like a parting salute of a school of young misses.
But Jane, who that moment came in at the door,
And never had heard such a sound there before,
Said, “Oh, sir, how can you? What are you doing?”
“Oh, Jane!” I exclaimed, “there is mischief a-brewing.
How could you with such indiscretion address me,
Why not in some silent way seek to repress me?
As soon as your mistress comes home from her walking
This horrid machine will set to a-talking;
The things will be lively ‘tween you and your missis,
For when, after ‘darling’ and hundreds of kisses,
Your voice exclaims, ‘Oh, sir!’ and ‘what are you doing,’
She’ll be sure to suppose it was you I was wooing.”

That’s the opening of Robert Ganthony’s comic poem “The Phonograph” (1900), just one of a number of fascinating nineteenth-century texts to be found within Patrick Feaster’s catalogue of “phonographic” culture at PHONOZOIC. I love this poem in particular because it taps into the Victorians’ erotic fascination with the machine, while the speaker’s curiosity about “How a kiss would come out / In a phonograph way” playfully suggests how technology might reconfigure the terms of intimacy. Does kissing still work? It’s as if we have to figure out what kisses are all over again.

When the poem enters “playback mode,” and we’re asked to forget what we’ve “seen” and simply listen to the encounter, things get really interesting.

Why is it that, whenever popular fin-de-siècle literature borrows the phonograph to perform its writing, the results turn out to be scandalous? In stories such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Voice of Science,” and “The Japanned Box,” the stigmatic marks of the machine introduce to narrative the discourses of gossip and indiscretion.

Does the essential scandal of phonographic inscription lie in the medium itself, rather than any particular message it might convey? Edison’s analog recording machine relies fundamentally upon the intercourse of bodies for the transcription of sounds. The physical intimacy between signal and medium captured by the phonograph subjects all communication to innuendo, transferring the idea of reproduction from a textual to an erotic register.

If the phonograph detaches voices from bodies, it does so by capturing the voice as a body, as sonic vibrations in physical contact with the recording cylinder. Consequently, an innocent conversation can be re-read as an enigmatic moment of physical contact. What sort of thing would the phonograph record? Most often, we find, scenes that reproduce the logic of its functioning, by exploiting this new and extraordinary sensitivity to touching.

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8 thoughts on “High Fidelity: Throwing Voices, Throwing Kisses

  1. Great post, Gregory.

    At ACCUTE, Emily and I took in a paper that discussed the perils of the telephone as represented through Ford Maddox Ford’s *A Call* (1910). The second part of that novel opens thusly:

    “And suddenly, in the thick darkness, whirring as if it were a scream, intermitted for a moment and again commencing, a little bell rang out at Dudley Leicester’s elbow.”

    Yikes! The presenter, Barbara Morris, explained how this (flawed) novel experiments with the narrative innovations–including a third-person narrator who fails to comprehend the full meaning of what he’s witnessing–that are usually credited to *The Good Soldier* (1915). If I understood her presentation, she linked these innovations to Ford’s rumination on the effects telephones were having on human communication and interaction.

    Reading your post, Gregory, got me thinking about how in many ways the telephone is the manichean complement to the phonograph. Rather than making a voice material by embedding it, it enables ultimate ephemerality. In place of “an extraordinary sensitivity to touching,” the telephone brings a networked, disembodied world into the privacy of one’s home. A telephone can ring at any time; anyone can be on the other line; voices and hence identities can be disguised; anything can be said; and once said, it is all lost forever with no witnesses other than the immediate listener.

    We spent a good deal of time in the Q&A talking about how this technology transformed the practice of courting, facilitating as it did unchaperoned conversations. I’m now trying to imagine what Ford’s first readers thought a telephonic kiss would sound like….

    p.s. Sorry to all for breaking house rules so early in our blog’s life, by straying beyond Victoria’s reign. As penance, I’ll make Dickens the subject of my next post.

    1. Thanks for the response, Eddy.

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, but I wanted to find a moment to give these ideas a good thinking-through. I like the idea of imagining the telephone as a “manichean complement” to the phonograph, though in 1878 Edison imagined this dialectic a little differently. He saw in his new contraption the promise of a perfected telephone, the use of which would no longer be restricted to “simple conversational chit-chat, and such unimportant details of business as are not considered of sufficient importance to record.”

      Why didn’t this hybrid technology of his catch on? I think in part because, as much as we may talk about tele-technologies as a means of “keeping in touch,” their success is partly dependent on the distance they allow us to maintain from each other. Even, or especially, in the world of business (where Edison incorrectly predicted his machine would have the greatest impact), it seems we still like the greater part of our interactions to remain “off the record.”

      How, over a century later, could we still be satisfied with the divided sensorial experience provided by the telephone—a machine that, like the end of Ganthony’s poem, asks us to listen without seeing? We turn to technology not only to enhance our sensorial interactions with each other, but also to provide deprivation of the senses. This deprivation is the key to the pleasure of Ganthony’s poem, as well as stories such as Ralph Bellamy’s “With the Eyes Shut.” If we snicker at Ford’s Dudley being shocked by a telephone, what are we to make of Bellamy’s narrator being seduced by a talking clock? The story’s title suggestively indicates not only the practical possibilities of reading by phonograph, but the dream state this fantasy-machine inspires. Even the driest information—the telling of the hours upon a clock—takes on a most enchanting ring when imparted by “the strong, sweet, musical tones of a perfect mistress of the art of story-telling.” Initially startled by the voice of this “young” and “charming” woman, “who could not have been standing more than ten feet from my bed,” Bellamy’s narrator turns out the lights in order to better enjoy “the bewitching presence which the voice suggested.”

      As far as this ephemeral nature of the telephone is concerned, one of the things I find most interesting is how often Victorian fantasies of disembodied communication were fundamentally dependent upon the bodies of women. Technological innovations such as the telephone and the typewriter succeeded in large part because they were channeled through existing economic and patriarchal networks, systems that helped nominate women as the perfect medium for communications. Whether you were working as a telephone operator, a “typewriter girl,” or even a spiritualist medium, serving as the physical hub of these information networks meant subjecting your body to intense scrutiny that often spilled into prurient attention.

      Edison, Thomas. “The Phonograph and Its Future.” North American Review 126 (1878): 527-536.

  2. Well said, Gregory. If the phonograph brings the voice into the erotic register that may partially explain why Browning’s sister through that replaying a phonograph of Browning’s (failed) recitation of “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” was an “indecent séance.” Her comment suggests that the dead speaking through a medium, rather than a machine, would be less indecent.

    On a side note, Jon Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes (2003), where I first read about Sarianna Browning’s account, has a fascinating chapter on sympathetic vibration in Daniel Deronda.

    1. Thanks Constance,
      I’ve been digesting Picker’s book in bits and pieces, but hadn’t yet got around to the Deronda chapter. I had however been wondering about what vibration meant for the Victorians while writing this entry. This is probably a question for Daniel (Martin, not Deronda), but it immediately starts me thinking about some of the Victorian vibration-machines that suggest their culture was tuning into this phenomenon. On the receptive side, you have ideas such as Babbage’s proposal for the “black box.” On the productive side, one might consider the soothing vibrations emitted (for strictly therapeutic purposes) by “Granville’s hammer”–the original vibrator.

  3. Hey Gregory, I remember reading a few years ago Barnes’ five-volume history of the early cinema in Britain. Barnes cites a poem from 1896 (I can’t give the exact details because it’s been a while) about the Edison kinetoscope. I’ve always found this a very strange way of introducing the general public to new technologies for recording or reproducing “real life.” There’s another one from 1896 about the Big Wheel at Earl’s Court that involves a kind of scandal when a man and woman are stuck above the city during one of many documented malfunctions.

    What do you make of such poetry? Why is the poetic such a popular means for exposing anxieties about technology and its erotic and/or catastrophic potential? Does the poetic assuage public anxieties (or perceived anxieties) about technology, or do you think it actually participates in a kind of promotion of the erotic frenzy of technological inscription?

    DM

    1. That’s a tough question, Daniel. It made me realize how little I’ve thought about the ephemeral, popular poetry of Victorian satire as an “experimental” form. Is there a generic name for this kind of poetry? What are its characteristics? These poems furnish a kind of cultural laboratory for testing these objects out, but seem most interested in letting them get carried away in fascinating and comical directions, engineering scenarios and making imaginative leaps that drive the principles and functioning of these machines to the extremes of scandal, absurdity, or malfunction.

  4. I see your phonograph, Gregory, and I raise you an aerophone, compliments of Haggard’s Stella Fregelius. (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6051) What the aerophone (a wireless telephone, essentially) lacks in re-playing ability, it makes up for in communication with the spirit world. The inventor of the aerophone becomes obsessed with the sensitivity of the machine, believing that he should be able to tune it to the subtle frequencies of ether, and hear (and broadcast to) those now beyond the moral coil. Talk about bodies turned into vibrations…

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